The transcript below is from the video “Game of Death – WTF Happened to This Movie” by JoBlo Videos.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

Hollywood has had its fair share of historically troubled productions. Whether it was casting changes, actor deaths, fired directors, in-production rewrites, constant delays, budget cuts or studio edits, these films had every intention to be a blockbuster, but were beset with unforeseen disasters. Sometimes huge hits, sometimes box office bombs. Either way, we have to ask: WTF Happened To This Movie?

So what do you do when you’ve got forty minutes of amazing Bruce Lee fight footage on your hands but your leading man just happens to be…well…dead? If you’re Golden Harvest you hire ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse to build a movie around your deceased star using outtakes, body doubles (who don’t look anything like Lee) and even a cardboard cut out at one point. The result is one of the most garish, ghoulish, exploitative movies ever to be put out by a mainstream studio (Columbia Pictures), which, to add insult to injury, only used a fraction of the glorious fight footage. Oh well, at least it had a score by John Barry.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

When Bruce Lee died tragically at the age of 32, shortly after finishing work on the iconic ‘Enter the Dragon,’ he not only left a gaping hole in pop culture, but also over 100 minutes of high-quality fight footage for an adventure film he was shooting called ‘The Game of Death.’ The footage, which included an incredible battle with basketball great, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, was too good to sit in the Golden Harvest archives. But what were they to do with it? More footage would have to be shot to work the fights into a feature film? But how do you make a movie starring an actor that’s already been dead for years? That’s the question faced by the people behind ‘Game of Death,’ which ranks among the most tasteless, ghoulish films in history. And we’re going to tell you about it because what the f* happened to ‘Game of Death?’”

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

Flashback to 1973. Bruce Lee was on the role of his life. After years spent toiling in Hollywood where he was sidelined to sidekick roles like Kato in the ‘Green Hornet.’ In between jobs teaching martial arts to Hollywood heavyweights like Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Sharon Tates, Lee had finally hit the big time. His first two Hong Kong kung-fu flicks, ‘The Big Boss’ and ‘Fist of Fury,’ were juggernauts – so big that production company Golden Harvest gave him virtual carte blanche for his epic follow-up, ‘Way of the Dragon,’ which he shot on location in Rome with the famous climax featuring him squaring off with Chuck Norris in a Roman coliseum. It marked Lee’s debut as a director, a job he was planning to reprise on his new epic actioner, ‘Game of Death.’ But the whole project was put on hold when he got an offer he couldn’t refuse – to star in an American-made English-language production called ‘Enter the Dragon,’ which would prove to be the movie that made him a world-wide superstar and kicked off the Bruce Lee mania. Once shooting was complete on ‘Entering the Dragon,’ Lee returned to ‘Game of Death,’ intending to make it a crossover film that could give him further foothold in the American market.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

He already had basketball Kareem Abdul-Jabar for the final fight and was keen on casting one-time James Bond, George Lazenby in a leading role. He had plans to meet Lazenby for lunch on the day he died, July 20th, 1973, mere weeks before ‘Enter the Dragon’ would make him a bonafide international box office icon. In fact, the film was so widely popular, it kicked off kung fu mania in the United States. Carl Douglas’ song, ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ blasted out of car stereos. Folks singed up for martial arts classes on mass and Hong Kong movies flooded the marketplace. But none were more popular than Bruce Lee’s first three films – all of which were confusingly retitled. ‘The Big Boss’ became ‘Fists of Fury;’ ‘Fist of Fury’ became ‘The Chinese Connection;’ and ‘Way of the Dragon’ was retitled ‘Return of the Dragon’, leading many to believe that it was a ‘Enter the Dragon’ sequel. When that particular well ran dry, well, there were still loads of great Hong Kong action movies to put out. Sadly, instead of capitalizing on the genre, the decision was made to capitalize on the name Bruce Lee. And boy, oh boy, did they have a lot of films to choose from with the Bruce Lee alike movement in full swing. There was Bruce Lee, Bruce Ly, Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lai, and more and more. But the genre quickly petered out when the audiences realized that these pretenders to the throne were just that – pretenders.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

In Hong Kong, they learned the lesson more quickly than in North America with legit stars like Jacki Chan, Gordon Liu, and Alexander Fusheng enjoying massive popularity. But those movies didn’t export beyond the grindhouse circuit in cities like New York and LA. People wanted more Bruce Lee. But he was dead? What could they do? It’s no surprise then that Raymond Chow, the man behind Golden Harvest decided to take the Bruce Lee he had in the vault and build a movie around it. To help, he hired Lee’s enter the dragon director, Robert Klaus, to make a film with an eye on the American market. The film would be populated with an American cast of character actors, including Oscar winners, Dean Jagger and Gig Young, with up-and-coming starlet Colleen Kamp and TV heavy Hugh O’Brien also joining in, alongside formerly colleagues, Sammo Hung and Bob Wall. The decision was made to cast a double as Bruce Lee, shooting him from afar, and cutting in stock footage from earlier Lee films and outtakes. The results were, to put it mildly, horrendous. Things get off to a promising start with sophisticated opening titles done in the James Bond style. The filmmakers’ best move was to hire legit James Bond composer, John Berry, to compose the soundtrack which is moody and frankly, way too good for the film it accompanies.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

At the time, Barry was composing a lot of great soundtracks for some pretty putrid films including the infamous ‘Starcrash.’ You know things have gone awry as soon as the reprise of the Coliseum battle in ‘Way of the Dragon’ is done with a terrible shot of Lee’s double and obvious grainy outtake cut-ins to make it pretty damn obvious that what you’re seeing is definitely not Bruce Lee. But worse is to come with a truly mind-boggling shot of Lee’s double looking into a mirror covered up by a tape cardboard cutout of Lee’s head on the mirror for him to hide behind. Just what the hell was going on here? Within moments, it’s obvious this whole endeavor was a bad idea. First of all, multiple doubles are used, including Yuen Biao, who would later become a star opposite Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in movies like ‘Project A,’ ‘Wheels on Meal,’ and ‘Dragons Forever.’ Biao handled the acrobatics, while Korean-born Kim Tai-Jung is the main guy doubling Lee as Billy Lows despite not really looking much like him at all. Tai-Jung would later go on to play the ghost of Bruce Lee in ‘No Retreat, No Surrender.’ Here’s the story. The Bruce Lee character in ‘Game of Death’ is an action star named Billy Lowe who is being squeezed by the mob who wants a slice of his salary, lest there be held to pay.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

Now this could have been an interesting angle as this was going on in Hong Kong at the time. But instead of a realistic group of triads, the mob was made up to come off like a bunch of James Bond rejects with Dean Jagger, best known for playing cuddly grandfatherly types, as the bald Blofeld clone. They even make him a stock evil doctor calling him, Dr. Lamb. He’s got a henchman played by Mel Novak, who’s named Stick because he carries around a cane with a dagger in it, while Hugh O’Brian is his number 2 Steiner. To explain exactly how Lee ends up Karreem Abdul-Jabar, they cut to some shots of a guy dressed up as him sitting in the shadows of Dr. Lamb’s lair. It’s not actually Jabar, because he thought the whole thing was gross. He was right with Lee’s friends, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Muhammad Ali also turning down parts because they thought this was pure exploitation through and through. Back to the plot. Billy Lowe is seemingly killed on set with footage repurposed from ‘Fist of Fury’ aka ‘The Chinese Connection.’ Morbidly enough, he’s killed when a prop gun fires a real bullet, which happened to Lee’s son Brandon on the set of ‘The Crow.’ In the film’s most tasteless moment, real footage of Lee’s own open casket funeral is shown. But it turns out Lowe faked his death with the help of his journalist pal, played by another Oscar winner, Gig Young.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

At the time, Young was a bad alcoholic and seems to be three sheets to the wind throughout. He met a young woman on the set of ‘Game of Death’ named Kim Schmidt who became his fifth wife. A few months after shooting, Young murdered his wife and then turned the gun on himself. All of this was already news by the time the film came out via Columbia Pictures in North America. So, with Billy Lowe having faked his death via a wax dummy that looks nothing like Bruce Lee, he goes underground and starts picking off Dr. Lambs organization one by one. This is done through choppy fight scenes, choreographed by Sammo Hung which aren’t awful but are marred by all the stock footage of Lee they cut in. With the character sporting a beard, they could have just hidden the fact that it’s doubled but no dice. Eventually, he jumps some bikers and adopts the famous black and yellow tracksuit that would become iconic, being used in everything from ‘Shaolin Soccer’ to ‘Kill Bill’. At this point in the movie, he’s the actual Bruce Lee, although the fights last a measly 11 minutes which is incomprehensible as loads of genuinely outtakes were left on the cutting room floor. Still, these fights are solid with him taking on the great Dan Inosanto with nun chucks, Hapkido master, Ji Han Jae, and finally, the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who surprisingly holds his own opposite Lee and proves, visually at least, to be a memorable adversary.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

But the fact remains that only a fraction of the previously shot footage was used and the plot line was absolutely nonsense compared to the straight-up adventure story Lee intended to shoot. It’s also unseemly that they framed the story around Lee’s character being killed as in that era, many conspiracy theories were surrounding Lee’s death, which has ben shrouded in mystery ever since. Despite everything, ‘Game of Death’ was a financial success upon its release. Different versions were made for different territories, with some having alternate musical scores and extra fight scenes. Most Asian versions of the film, also included Bruce Lee’s actual cat calls during the fights. In the American version, it’s a very fake sound alike. The estimated worldwide gross was over 40 million dollars, which was considerable for 1978. Critically, the film was reasonably well-received which boggles the mind considering how clunky it is. The film was so successful, albeit one that had seemingly no connection with closest film other than the fact that the lead character is named Billy Lowe.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

The only new Bruce Lee footage in ‘Game of Death 2’ is a deleted scene from ‘Enter the Dragon’ where he talks to a monk played Roy Chou. This wound up in the extended edition of ‘Enter the Dragon’ which is in circulation now. The other footage is from Lee’s days as a child star. One often neglected part of the Bruce Lee story is that as a child and teen, he was a fairly successful actor. Midway through the sequel, the Lee character is killed off resulting in yet more footage from Lee’s funeral. But at least here, the second half of the film is its own thing, with Billy Lowe’s brother entering the plot. ‘Game of Death 2’ never got much of a North American release. What’s perverse about ‘Game of Death’ is that outside of ‘Enter the Dragon,’ it’s likely the most famous Bruce Lee film because everyone remembers the track suit and the fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabar.

JoBlo Videos (Berge Garabedian & Paul Shirey; YouTube Channel features original video content, features daily movie & TV news updates):

The film itself has always been in circulation and is always part of the official Bruce Lee collections, including the New Criterion Collection Pack, although it should really be considered a glorified extra at best. Numerous other attempts to reconstruct the footage exist and all the footage can be seen in various iterations on YouTube and the DVD and Blu-ray. In some ways, it’s too bad that with today’s technology, a legit recreation of Lee’s work couldn’t be done in a way that would pay true tribute to the man. Here’s a suggestion: have Mike Mo from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood star in a filmed version of Lee’s original script with him starring as Bruce Lee. It would be better than stock footage or even CGI. It would take another couple of decades before North American audiences embraced the next great generation of martial arts stars, notably Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Jackie Chan, amongst others, all of whom followed in the footsteps of Bruce Lee. And while ‘Game of Death’ is nowhere near his best work, it still fills a weird gap in his short but memorable legacy.




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